Raya Sarkar’s crowd-sourced list of academicians accused of alleged sexual harassment has kick-started a conversation most of us in India like to sweep under the corner rug, next to that hastily hidden hairball guests must not see.
That Raya’s list presented names without context or the exact charges levelled against the men named has remained everybody’s biggest takeaway. The point of the list however, we assume, was to reveal that sexual harassment was going unchecked.
If you were to Google ‘workplace sexual harassment data’, you won’t get it. You’ll get several journals and research papers that talk about it, explain what it entails – but none that actually give you any solid data.
Recognising sexual harassment
My first brush with workplace sexual harassment was at my first job. Only back then I didn’t recognise it for what it was. Just another man, in a long list of men, who chose to make me feel uncomfortable, I thought.
In a meeting with a married, 35+ gent, from another department with my boss, the said senior official offered to take me on his next field trip to one of the company’s many factories. Just to give poor ol’ ‘deprived’ me a ride on one of those high-end trucks the company sold. My response was an awkward smile and a whole lot of feet-shuffling. Over the next few months, he’d stop me randomly for ‘casual conversations’ on the stairwell I used to avoid the lift, at the office canteen where I ate lunch, or walk over to my desk to ‘chit-chat’ – though we weren’t on the same floor. During these run-ins, his eyes would rarely find mine. His attention, nearly always focused a little lower.
In the years since, I have been groped in a crowded office lift, been the recipient of several distasteful and sexually explicit jokes; and been told by a senior who I barely knew that I ‘needed alcohol to loosen up’ in the midst of brain-storming session.
Hear that noise? It’s women saying #MeToo
What the #MeToo campaign and Raya’s list – despite all its flaws – has done, is give victims of sexual harassment a safe space to give vent. To voice to those feelings of anger and revulsion at the trauma they’ve faced. To finally talk about those memories they’ve repressed for years. What it has done most of all, is reveal unequivocally that while #NotAllMen make women feel unsafe, #YesAllWomen have faced sexual harassment in offices as well at some point.
I asked 11 women to share their stories of workplace sexual harassment. Four did. The rest were either uncomfortable with the idea, or did not have such an experience to share.
Chitra* (21) was interning at a company while she was still in college. A senior in the organisation would ask her out for lunch every day. Despite repeated refusals, he would come back the next day to ask the same question again. When she spoke to her boss about her senior’s behaviour, she was told that ‘such things happen all the time at work’. “You are a woman, you will get used to it,” he said.
Years later, at her second job, a colleague Chitra would speak with only in a professional capacity made it a point to leave work at the same time as her. He would crack inappropriate jokes (either sexist or sexually explicit) and would call her repeatedly to ask her to meet-up after work. She told him off. His attentions to her have stopped, but the residual discomfort of such an experience, hasn’t.
While out to cover an event, Asha* (then 22), became acquainted with a reporter from a different company. Days later when they met at another event, the two spoke for a bit exchanging pleasantries and work report. The guy in question messaged her the next day on WhatsApp; she hadn’t given him her number. He kept messaging her, she kept ignoring it. Till one day he sent her porn clips. She blocked him on whatever medium she could find him on.
Bina* (then 24) was asked to come out for a coffee break by a senior at her first job at a TV channel. With no reason to not accept such a request, she went along. While drinking coffee, he peppered her with questions regarding her personal life. ‘Why was she not married? Did she have a boyfriend? What was she looking for in her life partner?’, he asked.
Out of the blue he told her she was beautiful and asked if he could drop her home. She chose not to reply. The next time he asked her for a coffee break, she refused. Looking visibly furious, he told her that if she didn’t comply, he ‘would never ask her again’. Her refusal prompted him to keep his distance, but he made it a point to openly stared at her – casually positioning himself where he could watch her.
While interning, Deepa* (then 20) was required to work closely with the advertising/marketing team. Because she smoked and enjoyed a drink or two, the perception among some was that she was ‘easy’. While returning from a client meeting, she went to a pub at her senior’s request. After few drinks, he got increasingly personal and ‘flirtatious’. Uncomfortable, she asked to leave.
They were in his chauffeur-driven car, discussing work when the senior forced himself on her – kissed her against her will. She pushed him away and screamed but the driver didn’t stop. She kept screaming till the driver finally pulled the car to a stop. After her trainee period was over, she left; never once discussing it with anyone.
‘It’s been so long. Why talk now?’
None of these women, including me, ever found it in them to register an official complaint against their harassers. It happened years ago, women are often told. Why talk about it now?
Because it isn’t as easy as just ‘letting go’. Being made to feel unsafe at work can make feel anxious all the time. You panic when someone walks behind you in the corridor, refuse to go anywhere unchaperoned. Your anxiety peaks whenever your harasser passes by. But you still do your work, hoping your boss won’t notice your nervousness. Sooner or later, you’ll quit that job.
The first step in the aftermath of sexual harassment is to acknowledge that it happened. It wasn’t your fault. The shame and blame isn’t yours. You do not owe anyone your story, nor are you obliged to accept your harasser’s apology – but you do owe yourselves closure. Speak up. If for no one else, but yourself.